REVIEW: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Union Theatre ✭✭

The Importance Of being Earnest at The Union Theatre

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Union Theatre
13 October 2014
2 Stars

There is a moment towards the end of the Second Act of the Pulitzer Prize winning How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying where J B Biggley and Wally Womper are discussing the bad idea of a treasure Hunt. Womper is furious and Biggley tries to deflect blame by focussing on J Pierrepont Finch claiming that when Finch brought him the idea of a treasure hunt he thought it was a lousy idea. Womper asks why Biggley proceeded with it then and he answers: “Seemed like a good idea.”

As I watched Jaq Bessell’s production of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, The Importance Of Being Earnest, now playing a limited season at the Union Theatre (on days when the theatre would otherwise be dark during the season of Love Story) that sequence kept looping in my mind.

Bessell is upfront about his intention to “do something” with the play, in stark contradiction to the recent West End run of Lucy Bailey’s recent travesty that bore the name of Wilde’s play, and that is admirable. At least the audience knows what it is likely to see.

Bessell’s concept involves the following: two male actors playing all the parts; the actors having access to a script onstage; the actors appearing to toss for who will play with set of characters (essentially Jack and everyone who interacts with Algernon and, largely, vice versa); minimal use of props and set; absurdist touches to flush out a moment; modern anachronisms; miming singing; the odd dance (and I do mean odd); the breaking of the fourth wall; the introduction of tawdry sexual references.

And, actually, there is no reason why many of those notions could not be effective. Modern theatre is full of examples of small casts playing multiple roles in service of the spirit of the writing or the production: Fiasco Theatre’s six person, revelatory production of Cymbeline at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York or the highly successful runs of Potted Potter and The Reduced Works of William Shakespeare are obvious examples of this concept working spectacularly well.

This is not the first time men have tackled the female roles in the play – Hinge and Brackett did that long ago, and others have both before and after – Geoffrey Rush gave his Lady Bracknell recently in Melbourne.

The notion for tossing a coin for a part can bring an extra frisson of excitement to the performance, but it needs to be clear that the outcome is genuinely a surprise to the actors and not just part of the shtick. Here, one was unable to know.

But that is not the really bad idea. Style, or lack of it, is the uncompromising, implacable bête noir here.

Wilde wrote dialogue that sparkles, that requires quick, perfectly timed delivery to achieve its intended pleasure heights. Unaccountably, Bessell has permitted reflective, almost turgid delivery of the lines, not always, but almost always. There is melancholy, a faux profundity which asphyxiates the humour. The lines of dialogue are not immaterial, Mr Bessell.

The lack of style – or perhaps the adoption of an anti-style approach – ravages the physical aspects of the production much as Hannibal ravaged the Romans on the banks of Lake Trasimeno. There is no cohesion – it is Wilde’s Anything Goes. The musical and dancing vignettes are confounding, their purpose indiscernible. All they do is stop the flow of the narrative.

Overt sexual references are unnecessary, and fatally compromising, to this play, which is all about repressed lust and emotions. A “semi-recumbent position” does not involve a young man with his trousers at half mast, tight boxers drawing attention to a pert derrière. Seeing Gwendolyn as sex-crazed is to entirely misunderstand the character. Transforming Miss Prism from dour, glacial spinster to the equivalent of the Retirement Village’s bike at the sight of a crippled, perhaps hunch-backed, Chasuble sucks the charm out of those moments as surely and as thoroughly as a rapacious vampire sucks the lifeblood from its victims.

The costumes do not assist. One could see how this might work as an idea if each actor were immaculately presented in evening dress, with suitably glamorous accoutrements to denote other characters: a silver tray for Lane, a napkin over the arm for Merriman, a skirt for Cecily, a brocade coat for Lady Bracknell, a dog-collar for Reverend Chasuble, pince nez for Prism and jewels and gloves for Gwendolyn (say). But no. Here the actors are curiously barefooted, with crumpled dress-shirts and tuxedo trousers, with hats, scarves, canes and gurning silky faces denoting differentials between characters.

Nothing about the production works. It lacks cohesion, freshness or insight. So, as is too often the case, the burden falls squarely on the cast.

Simon Stallard proves the most gifted performer, with a lightness of touch and a perplexed, sardonic charm which suits the range of roles he essays. His Cecily was his best work, but there were glimpses of a real Jack as well. Within the confines of Bessell’s vision, he struggled manly to find a path that worked for text and character, his eyes ever alive with possibility, his body charged with energy. He is a performer to watch.

Bryan Hodgson, not, alas, a graduate of the “less is more” approach to comedy characterisation, floundered somewhat, but mainly because of the production. Having him portray Algernon in the first scene in silk boxer shorts ensured that any understanding of the character was lost, as if swallowed by a Black Hole, and Hodgson’s (perhaps understandable) attempts to overcome his bare legs by volume and savagery of delivery did not help. He was at his best as Lady Bracknell, although he missed the many opportunities for comedy silence offers that part, and at his worst as the randy Prism.

Of the two, Hodgson has the better theatrical vocal sound but Stallard uses his voice to better effect. Still, they obviously enjoy working together and their unabashed and unrestrained attempts to fulfil Bessell’s vision are full of vim and vigour.

Two promising actors, a bad idea and a great play. My chair went quite cold with grief.

The Importance Of Being Earnest plays on 19th and 20th October.
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